“Right then, Mam, you ready to be off?”
Ceridwyn accepted the fierce hug enveloping her and wrapped her arms tightly around her mother’s slim shoulders.
“You’ll do grand, cariad. The winds have been blowing for change for these many months. It’s time I was gone.”
Ceri gulped and nodded. “I know it.”
“Don’t you fret. You’ll do a proper job with ’em. Anything worrying you, there’s the scrolls and book to help. I’ve taught you all I can.”
She inhaled the familiar flowery fragrance Mam always wore and squeezed tight. “I know.”
A car horn honked outside. “Gareth’s taxi is here to take you to the station. You have a time of it, Mam. You’ve earned it.” She pressed a kiss to Mam’s soft cheek. Her mother’s green-hazel gaze held hers, eyes so like her own she could be staring at her reflection.
“Blessings on you, my daughter. Hold the willow rod with a steady hand, and they’ll come to you.”
Ceri sucked in a deep breath as Mam broke their embrace. “Should I go tonight or could it wait until the morning? For me tomorrow would be better. My period will be done by then.”
The car horn honked again. Mam glanced to the window. “I’ll have to leave now. I don’t want to miss the train. Tomorrow will be fine. They’ve been tended to today, and it would be best not to go with the moon tides still on you, not the first time.”
Closing her eyes Ceri held back tears at the kiss brushed so softly against her forehead. “Thanks for everything, Mam.”
“The gods love you, my girl. You’re ready to take charge here.” Mam backed off and picked up the blue suitcase. “Come next spring, I’ll call to see how you’re all doing.”
“Thanks, now off you go.” She urged her mother to the door. “Safe journey,” she whispered.
“Goodbye, my daughter.” One last gentle caress before Mam buttoned her coat, opened the kitchen door, and strode away. Blue case in hand, she took long paces down the shiny, wet path toward Gareth’s cab. Mam gave a last wave as she got in the car.
Ceri bit at her lip. She watched from the porch until the white taxi swept around the corner of the hedgerow and disappeared from sight. Tears stung her eyes. Partings, and she’d known only two others in her life, were hard and hurt like a bad stomachache. She sniffed, swiped at the tears, her face as wet as the drippy, rain-sodden garden. The herbs bowed down by the silvery drops would all do for this afternoon and tonight. Mam had made sure she’d have time for her sorrow. The wind blew a splatter of late spring raindrops’ chill on her face, and she turned to go into the house, from this day on, her house.
The AGA blasted out heat and, along with the comforting warmth, the familiar scent of stew filled the kitchen. Blessings on you, my mam.
She opened the small oven and checked the casserole dish. Another half-hour and her dinner would be ready. While the meal finished cooking, she emptied her college bag and happily dumped the entire contents into the recycling bin. There’d be no need for the notes any more. Maybe she’d pop down to get the results from her examinations when they came out in the middle of August. There again, she might not. Unlike her friend Gillian, she’d made no plans for going to university in the autumn. Her formal education was complete, and her place was here in this small cottage nestling deep in the hillside. A home with tiny windows, thick secure walls, and as many herbs as any Dragon Maid could wish for.
Hers was not the kind of employment you might see adverts for in the newspaper or on the computer, but nonetheless, the task was hers, same as it had been Mam’s and Gran’s and Great-Gran’s, and as far back as the writings in the leather-bound vellum book went. And somehow Ceri knew, no matter their names, their height, or the size of them, each and every one shared the same shimmery gold hair and green-hazel eyes. Tears of the dragon, so Mam said, was the family’s eye color.
A fresh well of sadness opened. Lonely. She’d been warned long ago, and she’d said she understood, but quiet as the kitchen was now, a deeper understanding suddenly bit. No laughing at her discoveries and all she’d seen out in the wider world and sixth form college, and no more learning of the lore of the serpent from Mam either. Right now there seemed nothing to say. No entries had been written in the great book about it, not a word on being and living alone. Perhaps she might add a little to the miscellaneous section. She shook her head. Her first entry in the great book couldn’t possibly be a complaint at her isolation here. She’d have to think of something far more positive to say. Maybe later, as advice to the next Dragon Maid, she might mention it felt a little strange at first to be alone. Yes, that seemed like a better notion. She flipped the small radio on and shook her head as Mam’s favorite morning station tinkled a jingle for preserving vinegar.
“Sorry, Mam. This tuning’s had its day.” A couple of tweaks at the controls and she found a music station she liked. One of the songs she and her best friend, Gillian, both knew the words to blasted out. Excellent.
Her phone vibrated on the table. Quickly she picked it up and, smiling, read the text from her friend.
Hi, Ceri. On ferry in half an hour. Mam green already. Da sour too. Kids fighting. I miss u. Luv Gill.
Every year since she and Gillian had met in infant school, the Jones family had gone to Southern France for the entire summer. Gillian always came back with a glorious golden tan, horror stories of how her mother threw up all the way there and back, and tales of how her father spent most of his time at their villa wrapped around a red wine bottle.
The arrival of the twin boys, Morgan and Reece, four years ago, hadn’t made the Jones trips any more entertaining. But Gillian’s French improved hugely when she met Ricard. He was the first, and each year from the time she’d hit thirteen, Gillian came back to school in September with photos of incredibly, impossibly gorgeous French boys.
Ceri puffed out a breath. Her one and only crush had been on Tony, who delivered fish around the local villages from the back of a tiny motorcycle. She’d danced with him once, two years ago, in a harvest dance. Twittery as a sparrow to be asked she’d been. Tony trod on her toes, smelled rather like the stuff he delivered, and when he tried to kiss her at the end of the last reel of the night, she’d recoiled.
Nineteen come November she’d be, and she’d not kissed one boy in her life. Gill was sympathetic, but agreed with her that, having only the local lads to choose from, Ceri was probably better off waiting until she met someone from elsewhere. How such a rare circumstance might come about, she’d no idea.
The bright letters of Gillian’s text stared up at her, pleading for a word of answer.
“No good, my friend. Your world and mine, they’ll not now twine, so must it be,” she said realizing she already sounded like Mam. “No, there’s naught to say I can’t have a friend. As long as I keep the sworn silence, all will be well.”
She replied to the text.
Have good time. Capture many French hearts. C U Sept.
Pressing send, Ceri smiled. They would see each other, at least for a couple of weeks, to gossip and laugh until Gillian went off to university in Durham.
The word popped into her head again.
No, not lonely, she’d be busy, like Mam had always been. Diligent about her tasks, full of learning that must be learned, seen about the hillsides doing the job she’d been born to. The rest of life, it could wait. But for the…Ceri shook her head, not even willing to think about such a step. She’d a good few years before she might open her mind to such a possibility. She sniffed again.
Stew, hearty, her favorite as Mam made—leeks, carrots, onions, and a rich minted lamb sauce. Lovely.
After she’d eaten, she spent the rest of the afternoon and evening preparing for tomorrow in the best way she could—by reading the book. At ten o’clock she put the book into its casing and went to bed. The new day would start at the first hint of light, and she didn’t want to be tired when she got to the caves. Somehow, she’d coax herself to sleep with her lavender-scented pillow.
* * * *
Ceri woke at the first note of the alarm, switched it off, and padded across the bedroom to open the drapes. Dawn strewed flashes of rosy pink, chill ice blue, and golden-yellow smudges across the horizon in early light, illuminating her cottage garden. A mass of delicate flowers of bleeding heart bent their heads toward the surface of the small stone pool. Beyond, a thicket of foxgloves stood proud as guardsmen, golden rod with its yellow stars shimmered by the gate, and the climbing rose bush sprawled like a lazy sunbather over the fence. The pale-pink flowers offered up such a glorious fragrance, and the rose hips made the sweetest cordial. One drop fell from a low-hanging flower, and the dawn palette shimmered in the pool.
She gave her quilt a rudimentary shake before tossing it back in place, and strode into the bathroom. As she’d hoped, the moon tides were done. She flipped on the shower and picked up her body brush and the zesty lemon salt scrub she’d made. The abrasive cleansing foam she lathered on woke all her senses with its sharp fragrance. The power of the water poured over her, through her, and she bowed her head until her hair hung like a dripping veil. All her woes slipped away, swirled, and vanished. The excitement of the day gripped her as she inhaled a deep breath. Would they come for her as Mam said? The very thought sent shivers all the way down to her fingertips. She lathered her hair with rosemary-scented shampoo. One final rinse and she stepped out, clean and refreshed in body and mind.
Another race of anticipation sped with her pulse as she opened her wardrobe. The robes she and Mam had made, sewing together so many evenings last winter, hung ready. Blue, green, sun-bright orange, deep autumnal brown and gold, each fell in sweeping lengths to the floor, and most were heavily embroidered with protective emblems, symbols of the task she’d willingly taken as her own.
Today, she’d wear the green robes, only right really, it being after Beltane, with the year swelling fat toward Litha and the first time for her to take up her duty.
The excitement grew as she dressed in the green robes. Not for the sake of something beautiful to wear but for the significance of what they meant. She glanced to the mirror. The robes fitted very well. Once she’d combed through her hair and made two long plaits, she wound a dark leather thong strung with her badge of office around her forehead. She tweaked it to make sure the small white star, made from five dragon-created stones set in shimmering silver, sat above her right eye. The images of her ancestors, those in the tiny sketches some had drawn, appeared in her mind. For certain, with the shiny star in place and the embroidery of her robes agleam in the dawn, she looked like them, and even if this might be the beginning, at least she bore the outward semblance of one of the Dragon Maids.
Barefoot, it had to be, according to the ancient scroll, but of course the instruction was written so long ago, at a time when many folk went without shoes in the summer and some in the winter too. Mam always said, “Wellies there and back. Barefoot in the caves.” And she’d do the same. With all that slithering over wet, muddy hillsides without her Wellington boots, she’d catch her death.
Once she’d drunk a glass of apple juice, she slid on her Wellingtons, hitched her robes up around her knees, and held them in place with the thick, plaited leather belt at her hips so the bright fabric wouldn’t trail in the dew as she walked. She’d not eat until after she’d completed her morning’s work. Uncomfortable some days she’d be no doubt, but not this one. A nervy ferment romped through her, and when she picked up the thick willow wand with its quartz crystal pointer, another wave of apprehension filled her.
Could she do it? Would they come to her?
Mam’s soft-voiced instructions returned from her earliest lessons and soothed her mind. “Self-belief, my daughter, is the most important thing. If you believe, so will they.”
“Yes, Mam,” Ceri whispered into the dimly lit kitchen, as though Mam might hear her. “I believe.”
The willow stave in her hand and her small wicker basket over her arm, she pulled the kitchen door closed. No need for locks. She stepped slowly through the damp garden, picked clumps of sage, spindly strips of thyme, stalks of rosemary, and finally added long stems of goldenrod. The first of the rose hips beckoned but not today. She’d make her charges wait for the ripe fruits as a treat, if they were…
Gods, please make them good.
Her herb basket clasped tight, her willow rod a stave to help her on her way for now, she strode down the path and out, over the first stile and up the hillside, where hummocks of granite and sedimentary rocks rippled through the rich greensward like the bared bones of the earth. About halfway to her destination, she arrived at a wide, rock-strewn plateau and paused to catch her breath. She might be fit and strong, used to walking the hills with Mam, but the climb this far still had her puffing.
The rising sun, whose brilliant arc matched her march up the hill, greeted her, warmth on her face and the last of the moon dissolved away into the brightness of a blue sky. What an auspicious day. The next part of her journey, she picked her way delicate as a mountain goat farther up the hillside until the shadowed opening to the caves appeared.
Shrubs guarded this entranceway, each one of them placed by Mam or Gran, and one or two were old enough to have been planted by Great-Gran, a devotee of the holly. Gran chose the delicate and nectar-laden buddleia, some of which bloomed now, its tiny purple flowers in long, draped, slender cones. Mam had planted low-growing gorse. Each spring it erupted with magnificent yellow blooms. Ceri thought again on her decision. When the time came to add her own signature here, she’d plant elder, for she loved its sweet frothy blossoms and its ripe fruits that fed birds so well.
She said a swift, silent prayer and ducked into the cave mouth. Here, she undid the belt at her hips so her robes hung smooth as they should, and she slid off her Wellington boots. From this entrance, she’d tread barefoot over the chilly surface of the compacted pale clay and raw quartz pebbles of the path. Along and down, she searched with her fingers over the cold and damp rock wall, feeling her way down. She descended deeper into the gloom and passed the low-hanging lump of granite Mam always called Lizzie’s Pap. The darkness now complete, her stomach rolling and her breathing rapid, she heard the echo of Mam’s instructions in her mind as she stepped for the first time onto the gravel-edged shore where the dark waters of the Jet Llyn joined her world to that of her new charges. She counted four paces forward. Blind for now, she stretched out her right arm and felt about in the darkness until she found the thick branch of wood holding the torch she needed to light.
Tiny pebbles stuck under her toes. The nip in the air sent a shiver over her as she set her willow wand down, and with her fingers a bit shaky, she struck the match to light the moss wound around the top of the pole wedged into the gravel. The torch flared. The dry stalks, which must be replaced each visit here, took easily and burned up bright. She breathed out in a rush of relief. So far, everything was as it should be. A fresh rash of trembles raised gooseflesh all down her arms and not because of the chill in the cavern.
Ceri picked up her wand and lifted the lit torch. She carried the light in front of her in her left hand until she reached the scrap of gritty beach with its short rock causeway that projected forward like a finger reaching out toward the middle of the deep water. Here, she held the torch shoulder high so the light glittered and reflected as in a mirror off the depths of the Jet Llyn. In her other hand, she held the quartz-crystal-tipped rod, and pointing it, she positioned the clear stone on her wand so it hovered over the still dark surface.
She swallowed, gave a little quiver, forced down her apprehension, and sucked in a breath.
Beneath the quartz point of her rod, illuminated by the bright torchlight, a single fat bubble rose. The water rippled. Stronger circular movements followed until small waves lapped at the shore inches from where she curled her toes so they gripped into the stones. An itch tickled in her palm, but she kept the rod steady.
Just as Mam said, they were coming for her.
The dragons were coming.